Can tart cherry juice really make you a better endurance athlete?
Google “tart cherry,” and you’ll find an extensive list of health benefits. From muscle recovery to improved sleep, it appears that tart cherry really is a wonder fruit. But, can it make us better athletes?
Unlike most trendy health products, tart cherry juice does appear promising.
Let’s look at some of the benefits that are backed by research.
What are Montmorency tart cherries?
Montmorency tart cherries are grown all over the US on small family farms and backyards, with most commercial growing in Michigan and Wisconsin.
These cherries get their bright red color and sweet/sour taste from a high concentration of anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid and antioxidant.
Tart cherries are sometimes called “pie cherries” because of their sour taste, with the inference being they aren’t sweet enough to eat without being surrounded by pie crust and filling.
Since the 1950s, health professionals have known that both tart and sweet cherries can cure mild gout.
Gout is an extremely painful condition that causes swelling in your joints, especially in your feet. It affects 4% of Americans.
Research suggests eating 10 cherries a day can reduce the risk of gout by 35%. (Zhang)
Lately, cherries have been popping up as a cure-all for all kinds of issues, from inflammation to insomnia to muscle soreness.
And strangely enough, cherries do seem to live up to the hype. Particularly if you’re an endurance athlete.
In a nutshell: Is tart cherry juice good for me, or is it just the latest trend?
While more research is needed, the simple answer appears to be
YES, tart cherry can improve muscle recovery in endurance athletes. (Vitale)
Let’s take a deeper look into the research around tart cherry and how to use it as an athlete.
Does tart cherry juice have antioxidant properties?
A meta-analysis of current research into cherry and its effectiveness in human subjects looked at whether cherries have antioxidant properties.
The short answer appears to be yes.
Out of the 10 published studies that examined oxidative stress, 8 found that oxidative stress decreased or antioxidant capacity increased after consumption of tart cherry. (Kelly)
These studies suggest that tart cherry has antioxidant properties, although the bioavailability of anthocyanins (the major antioxidant found in sour cherries) has come into question.
Why do I care that cherries have antioxidants?
Aside from the hypothesized benefits of a diet high in antioxidants for the prevention of various diseases, free radicals (the pesky, unstable compounds that antioxidants neutralize) play a role in muscle fatigue and soreness.
For that reason, it’s hypothesized that antioxidants could improve muscle recovery after exercise.
Tart cherry juice and inflammation
According to the most recent meta-analysis on the effects of cherry juice and cherry products on humans, out of the 16 studies that addressed inflammation, 11 studies showed that indeed,
Tart cherry juice can reduce inflammation in human subjects. (Kelly)
And although research is limited, the studies available suggest that these effects are particularly notable during exercise.
For example, one study found that marathon runners who consumed cherry juice or placebo for 5 days before, the day of, and for 48 hours following a marathon showed a reduction in inflammation by 10% more than in the placebo group. (Howatson)
Another study looked at 27 endurance runners and triathletes found that consumption of tart cherry 7 days before, the day of, and 2 days after an endurance event. Researchers concluded that tart cherry significantly dampens inflammation. (Levers)
Tart cherry juice can also reduce chronic inflammation. In one study, women with osteoarthritis who drank 10 ounces of tart cherry juice twice a day for three weeks saw a reduction in a biomarker of inflammation in the blood. (Khuel)
Can tart cherry replace NSAIDs and other anti-inflammatories?
There isn’t enough research to be able to confidently say that tart cherry can be as effective at reducing inflammation as NSAIDs. Actually, no comparison studies have been performed. However, leading experts do suggest there is promise.
Dr. Kuehl, who studied 54 runners during a 24-hour relay event, reported that the results of tart cherry on inflammation were the “equivalent to taking six to 800 milligrams of ibuprofen.”
However, because the results were self-reported, this claim should be taken with a grain of salt. But the fact remains that during that study, athletes who consumed cherry experienced a 66% reduction in pain compared to the placebo. (Kuehl)
Tart cherry juice for muscle recovery and pain after exercise
Because tart cherry juice appears to reduce inflammation, it makes sense that it could also reduce muscle pain after exercise and help optimize recovery after exercise.
Researchers hypothesize that cherries are so good at enhancing recovery because of “the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of anthocyanins and other phenolic compounds found in cherries.” (Kelly)
When you exercise, very small microtears occur in your muscles.
Researchers claim that the reduced inflammatory response after exercise seen in participants, paired with the higher antioxidant capacity, slows the secondary damage response that follows intense exercise.
Therefore, tart cherry juice allows for faster return of strength and overall improved recovery.
One study examined 27 trained runners or triathletes took either a powdered cherry capsule or a placebo for 10 days leading up to, the day of, and for two days following a half marathon.
The runners who received tart cherry averaged a 13% faster marathon. 13%!
They even had smaller deviations from their estimated pace compared to the placebo.
Researchers also reported increased antioxidant activity post-run in the tart cherry group. And inflammation was 47% lower in the tart cherry group than the placebo. Self-reported soreness in the tart cherry group was 34% less before the half marathon. (Levers)
Another study looked at the effects of montmorency tart cherry concentrate on cyclists over 3 days. They found that tart cherry significantly reduced biomarkers of inflammation and oxidative stress, and concluded that
Tart cherry may be especially beneficial during sport events where back-to-back performance is necessary. (Bell)
Tart cherry juice for arthritis
Cherries have been studied for their health benefits since the 1950s.
Back then, researchers were interested in whether cherries could reduce gout. What they found was that cherries could prevent “attacks of arthritis,” with patients reporting greater mobility in their fingers and toes. This is notable because the same mechanisms of gout are seen in osteoarthritis.
However, there have only been 5 studies on cherry consumption and arthritis, and the results are inconsistent. Although, they are weighed in favor of cherry reducing the effects of arthritis. More long-term research is needed. (Kelly)
Tart cherry for heart health
Cherries, both tart and sweet, reliably reduce blood pressure in available studies.
In the 7 studies on cherry juice and blood pressure, both systolic and diastolic blood pressure was significantly lowered within 2 hours after consuming 300 mL of cherry juice.
Interestingly, when cherry juice was ingested in a smaller dose every hour for three hours, there was no decrease in blood pressure. This suggests that for heart health, it is better to consume an entire dose at once, rather than over the course of the day. (Kelly)
In a study of elderly patients, 200 mL of cherry juice daily for 12 weeks significantly reduced SBP when compared to apple juice (placebo). (Kent)
If you are concerned with your blood pressure and are not overweight, cherry juice could be a healthy way to help manage your blood pressure. The added carbohydrates from a sugary drink, like tart cherry juice, can also aid in fitness recovery.
If you are overweight and concerned about your blood pressure, tart cherry juice is likely a bad choice for you. Tart cherry juice is high in calories.
Tart cherry juice and sleep
According to a meta-analysis, cherry juice really does affect sleep.
Researchers noted that “Both quality and quantity of sleep were improved by the consumption of sweet as well as tart cherries,” and continued to note that these effects were noticeable after only 3 days of consumption. (Kelly)
Improved sleep from cherries could be due to a chemical called melatonin.
Does tart cherry juice really have melatonin?
In one study of Montmorency tart cherries, researchers found that participants in the cherry group not only reported better sleep but showed increased levels of melatonin in their bodies. (Howatson)
Of course, if levels of melatonin in cherry juice are high enough to improve sleep, then it’s likely wise to forgo tart cherry before an event. It may be more beneficial to drink tart cherry as a recovery drink after the event, or in the evenings leading up to the event.
How much Montmorency tart cherry juice concentrate for sleep?
Whether or not you’ll feel the sleep effects of tart cherry depends on how sensitive you are to melatonin. It’s estimated that there are 13.5 ng/g of melatonin in Montmorency tart cherries, and one cup of whole cherries is about 190 grams. For people interested in improving sleep quality, melatonin is usually dosed between .3-5 mg. Therefore, you’ll likely need a cherry concentrate to feel any effects at all, unless you’re ready to munch on hundreds of cherries.
Try a 300 mL cherry concentrate drink before bed. If that doesn’t improve sleep, try a more potent sleep-aid.
Are there any side effects to tart cherry juice?
One of the biggest reasons athletes are drawn to tart cherry juice for muscle pain and recovery is because tart cherry juice is safe.
If you drink waaaay too much, you may experience GI distress, but beyond that, tart cherry juice appears to be harmless (unless you’re allergic).
Can tart cherry juice replace my pre- and post-workout supplements? No, but it can improve it.
While tart cherry juice does seem to be better than a placebo for muscle recovery and inflammation, it’s important to understand that there haven’t been any studies comparing its efficacy with traditional sports recovery supplements.
Tart cherry performs better than a placebo. That doesn’t mean it performs better than a sports supplement.
Don’t throw away your post-workout recovery drink just yet. There is a lot more than sugar and cherries that go into a good recovery supplement, like protein and leucine.
Because of the level of melatonin in cherry juice, you may consider taking it to aid recovery, as opposed to taking it as a preworkout supplement. Especially if you are sensitive to melatonin.
When it comes to cherry juice and inflammation, more studies are needed to see if cherry juice can stand up to NSAIDs. However, if you struggle with inflammation, cherry juice does appear to be a safe alternative to anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen.
How to take tart cherry juice for maximum muscle recovery
Tart cherry juice works by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, therefore accelerating strength recovery after exercise. There are no studies suggesting that tart cherry juice can help increase muscle mass.
That means that tart cherry is likely more effective for maximum recovery compared to building muscle.
Tart cherry juice appears to be particularly useful during single-day or multi-day events, where athletes need to recover fast. After a strenuous event, try adding tart cherry juice to your regular post-exercise routine.
How much tart cherry juice for maximum recovery?
With regard to dose, one meta-analysis notes that “most studies use 8 to 12 oz (1 oz if concentrate form) twice a day, 4- to 5-d loading phase before the event, and 2 to 3 d after to promote recovery.
Therefore, for an athlete who has already peaked in training and looking to improve recovery and faster return to competition, [tart cherry] may be beneficial.” (Vitale)
Where to buy tart cherry juice
Tart cherry juice is available as a capsule, gummy, and drink. However, because carbohydrates are key to recovery, athletes may choose a cherry juice drink over a capsule for added calories. You can purchase cherry juice online or at most groceries and health food stores.
Coming soon! Tart cherry in RecoverElite X.
Matt Mosman (MS, CISSN, CSCS) is a research scientist, endurance athlete, and the founder and Chief Endurance Officer at EndurElite. Matt holds his B.S. in Exercise Science from Creighton University and his M.S. in Exercise Physiology from the University of California. Matt and his family reside in Spearfish South Dakota, where they enjoy running, mountain biking, camping, and all the outdoor adventures Spearfish has to offer.
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